Autograph Hound

Derrick Lee is the most powerful political figure you've never heard of

This time has been different. The Sierra Club contracted with Lee Petition Management more than a year ago, and their petitions have been on the street -- with both paid and volunteer circulators -- ever since. They've already passed the number to get the measure on the ballot, but are continuing to collect, just to be safe. Guillory estimates the campaign will spend more than $65,000 for signatures.

So why is a campaign backed by the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters -- two of the strongest grassroots organizations in the country -- buying signatures?

"We do have a lot of dedicated volunteers who are willing to spend a lot of time on this, but the bottom line is that the requirements are such that you really can't do a campaign like this without relying on paid circulators," Guillory says. "Volunteers work and have other lives that they lead. . . . You're just not going to get the signature numbers you need by a weekend-volunteer effort."

Ironically, even Citizens for Clean Elections, the group that passed the initiative designed to take money out of the political process by publicly funding campaigns, paid Lee more than $50,000 for about half the signatures gathered during its 1998 campaign.

This year, it will take 101,762 valid signatures to make the Arizona ballot; they must be submitted to the secretary of state by July 6. A constitutional amendment will require 152,643 signatures.

The law on initiatives requires election officials in each county to check the veracity of 5 percent of signatures gathered in that county. (Candidate petitions are not routinely checked, but their accuracy can be challenged by an opponent.) Not only must an initiative-petition signer be a registered Arizona voter, the petition circulator must check "paid" or "volunteer" on each petition and fill out a document certifying that he or she is an Arizona resident with intent to remain in the state and eligible to register to vote and has not been convicted of a felony. Each petition must be notarized. Fail on any of these counts, and the petition -- and up to 15 signatures -- is tossed. Most campaigns buy an extra 60,000 signatures, just to be safe.

Derrick Lee says the requirements are onerous. Many states do not require petition circulators to be residents -- in fact, Lee regularly takes his Arizona employees on jobs in other states -- and many allow petitioners much more access to storefronts and other gathering spots. California allows circulators to gather signatures in malls. In Arizona, it's up to the discretion of the business owner.

"There's been no favors given to us, really. And every year it seems like there's something passed to make it more difficult," Lee says.

This year the Arizona Legislature considered a bill that would have required not only a particular number of signatures be gathered, but that they proportionally represent the voting populations of each county. It didn't pass.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down a requirement that Colorado petition circulators be registered voters in the state and wear badges identifying them as "paid," but Arizona's requirements are unaffected by the ruling.

Lee prides himself for a near-perfect record of qualifying candidates and issues for the ballot. "If they've got the money, they'll get on the ballot," he says.

Even Paul Johnson, the former Phoenix mayor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate whose group hired Lee to help gather signatures for an open-primary initiative that failed to make the 1998 ballot, says Lee was not at fault in that case.

Lee does have a handful of petitioners who've pleaded guilty to forgery. Last year, two of his petitioners were sentenced to two years' probation and fines of $1,600 each. In 1997, one of his petitioners, Stephoun Averette, received a seven-year prison sentence for fraud and forgery in connection with signatures for a Scottsdale rezoning issue.

The petitioner may be the one going to prison, but it's Lee's reputation on the line. He takes responsibility for making sure each petition is perfect.

All of those requirements are part of the reason that Derrick Lee has a monopoly. The signature-gathering business can be lucrative, but it's demanding. Seasonal, too. Lee busts his butt during signature-gathering peaks and sells security systems during his downtime.

"It looks a lot easier than it really is," Lee says. "We've got copiers, we've got computers -- big computers. Two offices here [in metropolitan Phoenix]. An office staff of eight people. It's a massive undertaking."

Lee also has coordinators in Tucson, Flagstaff and Prescott, and considering that he's out of town for days at a time during his high season -- and often takes three days to return a call, if he returns it at all -- it's amazing that he gets the job done. But his clients say he does, and they keep coming back.

Lee refuses to disclose his income. Maricopa County records show he built his $250,000, 3,200-square-foot Gilbert home in 1996. "A lot of people think I'm rich. I wish I was," he says.

A computer-assisted review of the Arizona Secretary of State's campaign-finance database for the 1996 and 1998 election cycles revealed more than $1 million in payments to Lee Petition Management. And that figure (a conservative one) only reflects the money Lee took in for statewide initiatives in Arizona; it doesn't include the local, city and county issues he worked on, or his out-of-state jobs.

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